Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Keeping Focus on Faceless Opponents

September 26, 2019
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The captains’ team meeting at the onset of this week really wasn’t all that unusual.

And the subsequent aches and pains from what coach Brian Kelly termed perhaps the most physical game for one of his Notre Dame teams? Somehow it wasn’t all that bad when the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish returned this week to the practice field in advance of Saturday’s clash with No. 18 Virginia.

“Coach Kelly explained it to us (Tuesday) after practice; when you’re the team that’s being physical, it doesn’t hurt as much hitting as it is getting hit,” said fourth-year offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer, who garnered an elite pass-protection grade from Pro Football Focus in the Georgia game. “(Tuesday’s practice) felt great just going out there and moving around.”

It’s the mindset of a more mature Irish team, one that owns wins in 24 of its last 29 games but also remembers the scars from the 4-8 2016 campaign.

Notre Dame’s focus is organic; opponents sound a bit like a ‘Game of Thrones’ character series.

“Everyone we play is a faceless opponent,” said Kraemer, who’s played in 28 of the Irish’s last 29 games. “Doesn’t matter if they’re the No. 1 team or the last team, you’ve got to attack them because in this game anyone is good enough to beat you.

“Just really responding and bouncing back and showing that we can do that and sticking to our prep and just attacking.”

In 2017, Notre Dame’s response to its first loss was seven-straight victories before limping to the season’s end with losses in two of the Irish’s final three regular-season games.

A year ago, a Citrus Bowl win on New Year’s Day became the impetus to a 12-0 2018 regular season and first-ever berth in the College Football Playoff.

Kelly expects this team, with nearly 30 juniors and seniors in its two-deep, knows precisely the identity it needs to continue carving this week against the Cavaliers.

“I mean, clearly, they know what's at stake for them this weekend, they're playing a really good football team that's nationally ranked, I think it is the first time (the Cavaliers) have been ranked for three weeks in a long time,” Kelly said. “They feel really good about themselves. They'll come in expecting to win. They're going to be challenged and they're going to have to respond. Yeah. You want to find those things out.

“I have a good feeling that they're going to respond in the right way. Again, it’s closer to defining who you are after coming back from a loss than it is any time after a win.”

Notre Dame is beginning to define some key team strengths, most notably its pass-protection on offense and elite play from its secondary on defense. The Irish have allowed just four sacks on more than 100 drop-backs; their secondary is ranked 10th with a pass efficiency rating of 95.12.

Not that players are noticing stats; the process is the purpose.

“Just to continue to show that tenacity and that grit that this team is made of and just being able to show that we’re a team that can win any game,” said strong safety Jalen Elliott. “When we step on the field, we’re pushing each other to be the best that we can be each week.

“It’s important to be ready to go and just be ready to showcase our process each week.”

This game, Kelly emphasizes, carries the potential to be a cornerstone moment for whatever this season may hold.

“My sense and expectation is that they understand the importance of where we go from here after the Georgia game,” Kelly said. “For them to fulfill the goals and the mission that we have set forth for us, we have to play better football from here on out.

“So pretty confident that they understand that and what's needed from them moving forward.”

 
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